The 1st time it’s a mistake, the 2nd time it’s jazz
“The 1st time it’s a mistake, the 2nd time it’s jazz” is a saying that goes around among musicians, particularly among solo players. But what is this saying about, and what is its importance?
As a musician, I constantly improvise. As a tutor, I constantly showcase how to improvise. How? For me it all boils down to one thing – approaching fire with fire! In other words, giving the student the confidence that the sooner he/she walks the fire (i.e. starts to solo), the sooner the fire will not burn any more (everything becomes easier once you try it).
A point I love during lessons is that the moment I teach a student a scale, I immediately give them a backing track and tell them to start playing the notes not in series, to be free, to play anything whether it makes sense or not. Both student & I know that they need to go back home and practise that scale in alternate/economy picking vs a metronome to brush it up both visually and rhythmically, however we ignore that point, we stop thinking too much and get on with it! The point here is to improvise (which is singing with your instrument actually) and as everyone has sung before in their life (shower or breakfast singing counts!), it is by nature that they find their way. The subconscious is a big boy, we all know more than we think we do, so just play and it works sooner rather than later. Make no illusions, it will start as crap, but the more you do it the ratio of hay:gold will soon go from 9:1 to 0:10.
But anyway the point here is not how to start soloing, but for any of you reading this that have been soloing for a while (maybe in the simpler way explained hereunder) who would like to know what happens when for some reason they hit a ‘wrong’ note, a note that does not harmonically fit with the backing chordal accompaniment. So back to our idiom – the 2nd time it’s jazz! What happens then?
Repeat the ‘wrong’ note! And many times (at least 4, or 5-6 as the pic says). There is a style how to do this of course, so keep reading…………
In a band, there are 3 ways how to improvise
1. the simplest way – you know the chords being played by the rhythm section (as a band you rehearsed the songs and probably also know the other guitarist’s notes, if not also the bassist’s, + you know the drummer’s patterns, when the vocalist comes in & what note, and more or less the keyboard notes too). So there you go – you have worked already what scale to use, and off you go!
2. a still simple way – let us say you have not rehearsed, but are jamming for the 1st time directly live with some musicians. They have been so great to give you a chord chart of the song, so after all you will not know all other musicians’ parts, but more or less the chord chart will indicate what the other guitarist/keyboardist shall be playing. And that is enough for you to choose the scale to be used when it comes to the solo section.
3. the more advanced musical way (not necessarily a hard way) that occurs when you jam with musicians live for the 1st time and they DO NOT give you a chord chart and nor state the key – you are simply put there out in the fire, and you have to deal with it! With experience this is not difficult, so here is to how build that experience! You basically go on stage, keep your guitar volume down, and start hearing others’ chords to get the gist of it while playing some notes (just as you would start murmuring before singing)! Then you put the volume up and continue listening to those chords on the spot, and this way you will solo using right notes without the need of knowing the chord harmonization (as above).
But one might argue if they should be listening out to all intervals within a chord (just as one would do in aural tests in guitar exams) to thus decide which notes within the scale to use. Which becomes too much work at every bar and takes out the fun and fire out of soloing!
Absolutely not! In a jam scenario, you just play and when you strike a note out of the chord (the ‘wrong’ note), you just move a semitone up or down. One does not need to know why it works (if you do, check out my ear training & theory course Know It Hear It!), but it works. As when you do, you are giving an illusion to the listeners of changing key. So to ensure that illusion strikes home effectively, just repeat that wrong note a couple of more times and then return back to the ‘right’ notes (not necessarily in order, but you could go to a ‘right’ note and return to the ‘wrong’ one some more times – the possibilities are endless).
Believe me, that when you manage to overcome this fear, and that you simply go for it, it is not burning fire if you know how to walk that fire, but sweet fire of music passion! For all who need to see to believe, we would not have Surrealism nowadays (and with it all those amazing out-worldly artworks on some vinyls you own) if Dali had not started seeing things differently than the ‘right’ rules of the time!
So, to recap, how to deal with wrong notes when they happen?
That could happen at a gig when a couple of hot women dance dirty a few feet away from you (or any other reason anyway) not ? You can loose track of which song we are doing, the tempo, the key, … Naughty boy! When that happens, you have not been paying attention to one, two, or all of these:
- What are you playing?
- What is everyone else playing?
- How is what you are playing fitting in with what everyone else is?
This listening list includes the notes you’re choosing, the phrasing you’re choosing and how loudly you’re playing.
So if at any time you notice the band is getting shaky, go through this list to ensure it’s not you, and if not identify who it is and do what is possible to tighten up the band. Maybe playing the same wrong notes that the other band member is playing? After all this is what makes live music so beautiful, – how it always differs from the recorded songs!
Music, and in particular, improvisation is a listening art! So remember to always listen with your ears not your eyes. Because those hot women can distract your eyes but not your ears 🙂
Suggested related reading – http://www.malcolmcallus.com/fingerboard/
Modern approaches to guitar, bass & music theory tuition